Russia’s Geopolitical Challenge to NATO

By Nicholas Dima | August 22, 2011

  
NATO Secretary General RasmussenRussian Mission to NATOMeeting of NATO Russia Council, Sochi Russia
Source: NATO

In the 1990’s post-Cold War period following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the groundwork was laid for the creation of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) in 2002, where the Kremlin received a virtual seat at the NATO table. Opposition to NATO expansion has never ceased to be a goal of Moscow, when in April 2008 it exercised its de facto veto over the Ukraine and Georgia’s path to NATO accession. While in August 2008, Russia invaded sovereign Georgian territory and occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

An Economist article in July 2010 asked the question: Could Russia join NATO? “Joining NATO,” it stated, “means quite deep internal changes. Russia would have to reach, say, Turkish standards of political contestability and the rule of law in order for discussion of eventual membership to make sense.” Russia today continues to consider NATO a “threat” and a “danger” according to its strategic documents.

Russia’s record of expansionism is represented by a strong historical and cultural identity, while its geographic identity is rather vague. From Moscow’s point of view, Belarus and Ukraine remain part of Russia. Further west and south from the Baltic Sea to Moldova and from there to Georgia by the Black Sea, the area is seen as a Russian sphere of influence. Beyond that, the West is seen as a world dominated by NATO and America and cannot be trusted. Actually, for Moscow the United States continues to be the main enemy. Consequently, relations with post-Soviet Russia remain uneasy and the recent “resetting” of relations by the Obama administration only encourages Russia’s geopolitical ambitions.

Could Moscow join NATO and the European Union to defuse the existing geopolitical stalemate? For numerous reasons, the short answer is No!

First and foremost, NATO membership presupposes Moscow’s recognition of the territorial integrity of the European nations, including Georgia.

Russia of the last 500 years that the world has known would no longer be itself if submitting to a center other than Moscow. Actually, by adopting the socio-political arrangements and behavior of the West, Russia could even disintegrate. For the current generation of Russians, Russia must keep to itself and must be wary of the Chinese multitude to the east and of the European influences to the west. Yet, in this era of interdependence, Moscow can no longer develop in isolation and for this reason its attitude is ambiguous.

Moscow envies Europe’s and America’s level of development and prosperity and would like to enjoy the fruits of their status, but without changing its own socio-political system. While trying to emulate some aspects of Western culture and technology, Russia has established economic bridges with the larger European countries, such as Germany and France. However, Moscow continues to fear NATO’s eastern expansion and America’s global reach and dominance. And there is nothing more that Moscow would like to see than the decoupling of Western Europe from Washington. Thus, in order to strengthen its position, the Kremlin has put its foot down in Belarus and Ukraine and has created a three-legged geopolitical stand in Europe. The three legs are: 1) The Kaliningrad enclave, or oblast, to the Baltic Sea; 2) The Trans-Dniester “republic” in southeast Europe; and, 3) Abkhazia by the Black Sea in the Caucasus.

Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad, formerly East Prussia, is a Russian militarized enclave located between Poland and Lithuania but now without a contiguous Russian border. Yet, Kaliningrad has been part of the Russian Federation ever since the end of WWII. Also, since the war, Russia has maintained important military installations in the area, which were obviously directed against NATO’s northern flank. According to the article “Kaliningrad Oblast-Military,” one of many articles on this subject available in Wikipedia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the “Kaliningrad Oblast was one of the most militarized areas of the Russian Federation, and the density of military installations was the highest in Europe.” Actually, Russia has continued to keep ground troops in the oblast, as well as naval and air force personnel. The Washington Times, of January 3, 2001, cited anonymous intelligence reports and claimed that for the first time since the Cold War ended Russia had transferred tactical nuclear weapons into a military base in Kaliningrad. In order to maintain a regional balance of power, the previous American administration under President George W. Bush decided to deploy a new anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. However, on November 5, 2008, Russian President Medvedev declared that Russia would deploy modern Iskander missiles in the oblast as a response to U.S. plans for basing missiles in Poland. A few months later on January 28, 2009, a Russian official stated that the deployment of short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad area would be reconsidered due to perceived changes in the attitude of the United States towards Russia following the election of President Barak Obama.

While the previous Republican administration proved to be firm and was ready to install the new missile system, the new Democrat administration, under Barack Obama, changed course. Then, in July 2009, Mr. Obama went to Moscow and discussed with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin a series of delicate international issues. Among other things, the Romanian language paper Ziua, of July 8, 2009, reported that the Russian Prime Minister had stressed that Ukraine and Georgia “are very important to Russia.” In turn, President Obama promised that he would “keep this in mind.” On the same day, Pravdareported that Mr. Obama concluded his visit with conciliatory words toward Russia’s leadership and with only mild challenges to Moscow’s behavior. By pursuing a policy of accommodation the new administration caved in to the Kremlin’s demands and renounced the already agreed-upon missile defense plan. Eastern Europe reacted with disbelief and had a hard time accepting the new American attitude. It appears that for the first time, since the end of the Cold War, the United States blinked.

Trans-Dniester

The self-proclaimed Trans-Dniester republic is a small area that split from Moldova by the time Moldova itself became independent. In this regard, few people remember the 1992 war between the Moldovan forces and those of this region. With Russian military and financial help, the Trans-Dniester region has kept its de facto independence ever since and has become a hub of arms trafficking and illegal activities. On December 7, 2003, The Washington Post wrote that this enclave was being led by mafia-style leaders and remained an extremely dangerous place for black marketeering. The paper noted that the area had small remnants of the Russian 14th Army, but with huge quantities of shells, mines, rockets, dirty warheads and possibly other weapons ready to be sold to whoever had the cash to buy them. The situation has not changed over the last eight years and indeed the Trans-Dniester area continues to represent an unending source of friction in southeast Europe.

In fact, Moscow is using this region against Ukraine, should this country try to pursue a pro-Western policy, as well as against Romania and the south-eastern flank of NATO. (See Nicholas Dima, “The Moldovan-Dnestr Republic: A Geopolitical Game,” The Journal for Social, Political and Economic Studies, Spring 1999). While it is taken for granted that the Kaliningrad enclave is a Russian territory, and since Moldova has been very much forgotten, Georgia is still fresh in the West’s memory.

Abkhazia by the Black Sea in the Caucasus

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, to secure its position in the geopolitically important Caucasian region, Moscow instigated several local minorities to act as proxies for its own interests. The Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, for example, inhabited mainly by Armenians, waged a war against Baku and linked itself to Armenia. The area is now controlled by the government of Armenia, which itself is the only Russian ally in the region. Then, when Georgia proclaimed its independence and expressed its intention to join NATO and the West, Moscow helped Abkhazia and South Ossetia break away and declare their own separate independence.

Of these two Georgian areas, Abkhazia is more important geopolitically for Russia because of its location by the Black Sea close to Turkey, an American ally and a NATO member. Three years ago the two areas triggered a bitter war between local forces helped by Russia and Georgia. America and the West protested against the Russian military interventions, but to no avail. To this day these areas have maintained an ongoing feud over the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, recently referred to the “artificial borders” of South and North Ossetia (which belongs to the Russian Federation) alluding to the possible annexation of South Ossetia, a move that would not be surprising but would alarm NATO and the West.

Abkhazia, however, represents the third leg of Russia’s geopolitical strategy against NATO and America. Granted the geopolitical significance of the Caucasus region, its proximity to oil-rich South Central Asia and the Caspian basin, and also its proximity to Israel and the troubled Middle East, the situation of Abkhazia and Georgia deserves special attention.

The recent “reset” of America’s relations with Russia pursued under President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been a one way street in favor of Russia. Since the resetting, the United States caved in to Moscow’s opposition to Europe’s anti-missile shield and practically stopped pressuring Moscow to withdraw its military from the Trans-Dniester area of Moldova. With regard to Georgia and the Caucasus, however, Russia is actually pushing America around.

In this vein, Ely Lake from the Washington Times wrote on August 4, 2011: “Russia uses dirty tricks despite U.S. reset.” At the same time, the former Senator Christopher Bond, who served as the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence between 2007 and 2010, said: “We are concerned about the acts of intimidation as well as their record on previous agreements and other activities. It’s a real concern, I’ve raised it. It’s not the intelligence committee that fails to understand the problem. It’s the Obama administration,” concluded the former senator as he referred to Russia’s current policy.

NATO itself recognizes what it calls “political differences” remaining on some high-level issues – such as “Russia’s suspended implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and issues related to Georgia.”

For the time being, the situation of Georgia remains at the forefront of the U.S.-Russian controversy. Moscow perceives Washington as weak and indecisive, while pursuing a policy of challenges and even intimidation. Among other things, The Washington Post reported recently that the U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia’s military intelligence was responsible for a bomb blast that occurred last September at an exterior wall of the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi.

The problem is that weakness and the perception of weakness is provocative.

Given the volatility of the area from Libya to Syria and from Israel to Iran, the United States must demonstrate a clear position of strength not only toward the smaller countries of the region, but also toward an unrestrained Russia. Recent reports show that at home the current Russian leaders have resorted to the old policy of authoritarian control. On the other hand, internationally, prominent Russian circles aim at recreating the former union under the Eurasian banner. And indeed, they are reasserting Russian goals by challenging American interests.

Is the current administration in the White House up to the new challenges? The State Department continues to make rhetorical statements favorable to Georgia and Moldova, but Moscow is ignoring Washington and is rapidly advancing its own agenda under the cover of the NATO Russia Council.


Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.